Detainees Say ICE Officers in El Paso Routinely Harassed, Assaulted Them

Protesters walk along Montana Avenue outside the El Paso Processing Center in El Paso, Texas, in June 2018. (Rudy Gutierrez/The El Paso Times via AP, File)

EL PASO, Texas (CN) — Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers routinely sexually harass and assault detainees at the El Paso Processing Center, an immigration nonprofit charged in a complaint sent to the city’s district attorney Tuesday. 

Two women and a man told Las Americas Advocacy Center legal services director Linda Corchado that guards assaulted or harassed them at the El Paso detention facility, which was recently thrust into the national spotlight when a Nepalese asylum seeker on hunger strike nearly died after being force-fed by immigration authorities there.

“Working in concert with one another, women tell me guards, and lieutenants, force themselves onto them and corner them into areas they claim to be unmonitored by cameras,” said Linda Corchado, director of legal services at Las Americas Advocacy Center, which provides legal services to immigrants and refugees in West Texas and New Mexico. “These predators brainwash women into believing they can control their fate in immigration matters. They tell women they are powerless, that they have no rights, that no one will believe them.”

One of the female detainees said an officer “forcibly kissed her and touched her intimate parts” in November 2019, when she was walking from the medical unit to her barrack in a corner she suspects is not visible by surveillance cameras.

The same officer accosted the detainee again days later, she said, and told her he would help her get released from federal custody if she “behaved.” He allegedly told her that nobody would believe her if she reported his behavior.

After the officer allegedly stared through a clear window at her and other women who were using the bathroom, the detainee reported the assaults to a female guard, who referred her to an ICE captain who reportedly dismissed the complaint.

She also reported that a second ICE officer assaulted her twice in a camera blind spot before telling her there would be no evidence of the assault because it occurred out of sight of cameras. This first detainee remains in ICE custody.

The second female detainee accused an officer of accosting her while she was walking to her barrack, telling her she is attractive and that she should “fool around” with him, promising clean uniforms and extra soap if she agreed.

The officer allegedly told the detainee that they could have sex in a camera blind spot if she requested anxiety and depression medication from the medical unit and additionally promised her “a lot of money” if she had sex with him.

The woman reported in total six incidents in which officers made unwanted advances on her, stared at her or promised soap or clean clothes in exchange for sexual favors. This second detainee was released from custody in April but says an ICE officer continues to send her sexual messages via detained women with whom she has stayed in contact.

The man says that an officer stared at him and other detainees as they showered, rubbing his genitals while the detainees shouted at him to stop.

When the detainee reported the incident to an ICE captain, he reported being told that the officer “was just doing his job,” so he wrote an incident report alleging the captain’s investigation was mishandled.

The detainee said that, in retaliation, he was put in solitary confinement for five days, which he protested by refusing to eat food or take his blood pressure medication. He was transferred to a detention facility in Otero County, New Mexico.

“The terrors of detention at our local El Paso ICE facility have morphed into a new horror,” Corchado says. “In the complaint I share with the public today, these victims provide a pattern of systematic, predatory behavior exhibited by guards.”

Corchado brought these charges to the attention of El Paso County District Attorney Jaime Esparza and John Bash, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas. Esparza’s office said it has asked the Office of the Inspector General to investigate the complaint.

Bash did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday. 

According to Corchado, ICE officials have prevented Las Americas staff from conducting private phone calls with the first detainee, who remains in custody at the El Paso facility.

“The men who are controlling the conditions of her detention and the terms under which I can speak to her as her attorney, are the very men who have failed to keep her safe and are preying on her and other defenseless women,” Corchado said. “If this doesn’t sound right to you, that’s because it isn’t.”

Corchado has filed a stay of deportation for the woman.

“Your nationality, your citizenship, your gender, should never play a factor into whether or not you deserve justice in this country. Every woman is worthy of protection and safety in our community,” Corchado said. “If we do not protect them, do not protect all women in El Paso, what does that say about us, about who we are and about what we stand for?”

An ICE spokesperson said in a statement that the agency has “zero tolerance” for sexual abuse of assault against people in its custody and takes allegations of employee misconduct “very seriously.” 

“ICE is aware of the complaint which will be investigated by the Office of Professional Responsibility and the Office of the Inspector General as is standard procedure,” the spokesperson said. “As public servants working for a law enforcement agency, ICE employees are held to the highest standard of professional and ethical conduct. Incidents of misconduct are treated with the utmost seriousness and investigated thoroughly. When substantiated, appropriate action is taken.”

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